In our corner of El Cerrito del Norte there weren’t many food stores conveniently located for those lacking a car. There was a Lucky’s (which became Albertson’s) about a mile away that we would hike to every two weeks and come home with our backpacks full and a plastic shopping bag on each arm that we prayed wouldn’t break on the way home.
Our other option was 99 Ranch Market, an Asian specialty grocery store inside a strip mall full of other Asian stores and restaurants. I once went to an upscale food court shop with Mark and we each bought a bowl of Chinese seafood and noodle soup. I’d never had it before, but it sounded delicious with the shrimp, scallops, and sea cucumber in a nice rich broth.
The guy behind the cash register brought our soup and set mine down in front of me.
And there was the biggest shrimp I’ve ever seen looking back at me.
Just staring at me with black, beady eyes and antenna waving up into the air and shimpy little claws stretching out to me like he was asking for a hug.
I ate 3 bites before I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I removed Shrimpy McShrimpalot and even that didn’t help. I never ordered that soup again.
Then there was a hot pot place and the best Thai food I have ever had. And it was cheap, which was important because there wasn’t a one of us in the house that didn’t qualify for food stamps. (And none of us ever signed up for them.)
But all that paled in comparison to the wonder that was 99 Ranch Market.
99 Ranch Market is a vast field of fruits and vegetables and aisles of cans, bottles, and packets. Then there were the boxes. They had boxes of stuff everywhere. It was like an episode of hoarders. More cans. More bottles. More crates of fruit. Just sitting there. You know, in case they ran out on the shelf.
It’s so tight you can’t get the regular American-sized carts through the store so you have to use a hand basket or a very slim model of cart. And apparently the market version in China are much fuller than this. The writer of the Wikipedia page (so take this with some salt) says that the “aisles that are wider and less cluttered than in most other Chinese markets.” If that is true a normal sized American will never fit through the aisle of an actual store in Shanghai. (I checked the page to make sure I had the name right. There is a Ranch Market, a Ranch 99 Market, and then this 99 Ranch Market. I had remembered it as Ranch Market 99, which doesn’t exist, so there is room for growth in this industry.)
My favorite aisle was the frozen food aisle. I could buy giant packets of frozen pot stickers and dumplings for pan-frying and steaming in the comfort of my own commune. And then I’d head over to the condiment aisle to get the necessary spicy hot mustard and duck sauce.
They even had a take-out counter. After my experience with the soup I wasn’t brave enough to try and order the pork spare ribs because I was afraid of what else would be included. But I did go to the bakery counter and get some sweet buns and a coconut and lychee cake once. That was delicious.
And then there is the fish aisle. You smell it before you see it.
In a surgically clean and virginally white case there were stack upon stacks of fish. Some whole and some fillets. The men behind the counter wore spotless white lab coats and handed out pristine packets of fish to the shoppers.
But the smell of fish was still there. Just from the sheer volume of fish for sale in that store.
Maybe it was from the wall of aquarium tanks that held actual live fish. Tanks of crabs, swarms of live shrimp, and heaps of live lobsters. The live fish in the tanks were of a variety that I couldn’t name even on my best day. Sometimes there was just one and sometimes you’d come across a tank with 3 or 4 huge fish swimming around.
In front of the wall of tanks was a water trough filled with baskets of fresh clams, mussels, scallops, and oysters. You took a wide flat slotted spoon and spooned out what you wanted into plastic bags. You could have them steamed there or you could steam them at home. But after the Food Poisoning Debacle of 1997 I never wanted to be near a mussel again so I passed on those.
It was like a bizarre wonderland of Asian food. It held things that I couldn’t have even imagined. I mean, I was from Iowa and the most exotic place I’d traveled was London and Dublin. I couldn’t even imagine munching chicken feet or snacking on pig snout on a stick.
But 99 Ranch Market was famous in our area. They even advertised. Our friend, Russell, once saw a TV ad for 99 Ranch Market. The slogan was “99 Ranch Market! With you 99 out of 100!”
99 What out of 100 What? Days? Dumplings? Pig snouts? What was it that you were with us on?? And why not a full 100%? Why only 99%?
Everyone went there – to shop, to eat, and to gawk. It was a valuable source of entertainment for those of us who couldn’t afford cable. Or a TV. The stuff you could buy was fascinating. The people were more fascinating.
There was a tattoo and piercing parlor nearby and so the evening food court was almost always filled with guys of various heights and girths with white bandages and/or plastic wrap covering some new and very irritated inked skin. This was also a place where they took a look at those tattoos for the first time.
This was my favorite part. You sort of walk through. Slowly. Acting like you are minding your own business. And you look for some guy who has just a few tattoos and a plastic wrap over some new, serious ink. Tattoos covered with only plastic was my favorite because you could see the tattoo before sitting down and waiting for what was to come.
“Dude! Check out my new tat!”
“Awesome, dude!” Pause. “I didn’t know Sheila spelled her name with two Es.”
Dude has just found out that he doesn’t heart Sheila. He hearts Sheela.
Or the little punk goth chick over there who is now Daddy’s Little Angle.
My favorite though was this one tough guy and his idiot friends. This guy is built like a fireplug – short, wide, and solid. His four friends are wannabes in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are sitting at a table eating Phò. He’s got some bandages and plastic wrap over his arm, so clearly he’s gotten some part of his sleeve done today.
And I guess it had been covered for long enough because the Fireplug asks one of his friends to help take off the bandages. All his friends get up and crowd around to see the work.
From where I’m sitting I can only see that most of his upper arm is covered in a vivid traffic cone orange color with some outlining. So he’s in the middle of a very long process.
“Cool, man!” one of them enthuses.
“Yeah, very cool!” says another.
“The orange is, ya know, deep. Orange,” says the philosopher of the group.
The other one stays quiet. I can hear the gears in his head grinding while the other ooo and ahh and heap compliments upon Fireplug. Then he says, “Why did you get a girl dragon?”
Fireplug turns from his Phò, “What?”
“A girl. It’s a girl dragon.” Then sensing danger he adds, “But girl dragons are cool.”
“What do you mean a girl dragon?” Fireplug drops his chopsticks and they clatter to the table, splashing drops of broth in an arc across the table. He heaves himself up and goes to the wall of mirrors across the room. “Is there, like, a cooch?” He twists and turns trying to see up by his shoulder where the – ahem – bottom part of the dragon meets its tail. “Did that fucker give my dragon a fuckin’ cooch??”
“I don’t see a cooch,” soothed the philosopher.
“Dude. There isn’t a cooch.”
“I see no vagina, Jeff.”
Fireplug turns on the 4th guy and kind of stalks him down, “So why did you think it was girl dragon? Huh?”
“He doesn’t have no dick. Boys got junk and girls got a cooch. I don’t see no junk so there’s got to be a cooch.”
“Son of a bitch!”
“Does it really need to have a penis? I don’t remember seeing dragons with junk swinging.”
And so then they start going around the room to the various pictures and tapestries and studying any dragons they saw looking for signs of genitalia.
Everyone was staring as they went slowly around the room peering, and occasionally pointing, at the dragon butts in the food court. I could see them nodding their heads and chatting as they made the circuit around the room. As they came by my table I could hear them talk.
“A lot of these don’t have anything.”
“They could all be girls. ‘The female of the species is more deadlier than the male,’ and all that.” I admit I was impressed. Perhaps the philosopher wasn’t as dumb as I thought. Until I realized that he was quoting lyrics by Space and not the actual poem by Kipling.
“Dude, that is deep.”
“There could be at least a bulge.”
“Yeah, man. Maybe we can talk to him about adding a bulge.”
“Dude! A bulge would righteously cool!”
And, having decided a bulge was needed to macho-up his flaming day-glo orange dragon, they hunkered over their Phò and started slurping noodles.
All-in-all, a completely satisfying and cheap dinner and a show. Phò Real.